When the Music Stops

By on Feb 11, 2010 in Tinseltown | 5 comments

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For a recent homework assignment, our professor wanted us to watch three consecutive hours of television on any cable channel. Of course I procrastinated and had to pick from the offerings on the last possible day. I chose to watch the midday Wednesday MTV lineup, which were amusing if not insipid episodes of Disaster Date and True Life. When it came time to analyze the programming, I ruminated on MTV’s current situation.

But first, here’s a little state-of-the-network address. The channel is operated by MTV Networks, which, along with BET Networks, is a part of Viacom. MTV Networks, in turn, also owns MTV2, mtvU, MTV Tr3s, VH1, VH1 Classic, VH1 Soul, CMT, Logo, Nickelodeon, Nick at Nite, Noggin, The N, Comedy Central, TV Land, and Spike TV. The Viacom website boasts that the singular channel MTV reaches 508 million households across a variety of platforms and that the network has been named the World’s Most Valuable Media Brand for eight consecutive years by BusinessWeek. Its targeted demographic is men and women from ages 12 to 34. And the actual demographic is pretty spot-on: Nielsen Media Research reports that by the third quarter of 2008, the median age was 21.1 and MTV had been the top-rated 24 hour ad-supported cable network among viewers 12 to 24 years old for 46 consecutive quarters. Also, new shows are becoming hits for the channel. As the Associated Press reports, “Jersey Shore, a show about hot-tubbing housemates living in the New Jersey shore shown on Viacom’s MTV, has become the top prime-time show for viewers in the 12 to 34 age group on Thursdays. Teen Mom, a reality show about the travails of single moms, is now the number one prime-time show on Tuesday nights for the 12 to 24 age group.” In fact, the finale of Jersey Shore attracted 4.8 million viewers, almost triple the number who tuned into the premiere.

But the network is in a bit of an identity crisis. It’s no longer music television. And even MTV acknowledges that: as of February 8, the logo no longer includes the words “Music Television.” Looking now at its rosters of shows, the only one I recognize as music-centric is MTV Unplugged. The rest, for the most part, are reality shows with various extents of scripted-ness.

But maybe with all the coverage of music on the Internet (e.g. music, artist interviews, and videos), MTV doesn’t need to focus on music like it has in the past. Maybe featuring up-and-coming bands in its shows is enough now. (To their credit, the network always shows soundtrack information on-screen, which is something I haven’t seen any other network do.)

MTV is often on in my “mod” (Hampshire speak for “apartment”), so I’ve seen a sampling of the lineup. Some shows seem like vacuous entertainment with no particular style or substance (e.g. The Hills). And some are intriguingly meaningful and worthwhile to watch, like MADE and The Buried Life, both of which revolve around transformation and self-empowerment as a result of determination and persistence. So yes, with all these new reality and documentary shows, MTV may be trying to figure out what it is in this decade. But it’s still often on in my apartment, and it’s still a cultural touchstone of my generation.

Note: I cannot tell a lie. Most of this post was repurposed from the paper I wrote for the assignment. But I wanted to share my thoughts nonetheless, so let’s just say I put that paper “into syndication.”


  1. Omid

    February 12, 2010

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    “… still a cultural touchstone of my generation”

    ugh, as much as I hate to admit it you are probably right, as you showed the numbers speak for themselves.

    That being said, it still doesn’t change the fact that Reality Television is %99.9 garbage. But I think that says more about us -the people that consume that garbage- rather than the people making it.

  2. Dan Clarendon

    February 12, 2010

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    I wouldn’t say it’s “fact” that 99.9% of reality television is garbage. Maybe just 99.9% of reality shows that you’ve seen.

    There’s a lot of trash out there, but there are reality shows that stand out—namely, shows that showcase remarkable talent (like Top Chef, So You Think You Can Dance, and even—though it pains me to say it—American Idol). These shows not only entertain but also inspire, since many feature contestants who overcame obstacles to get to be as good as they are.

    Reality shows that feature good role models for children (and for adults) will continue to gain my appreciation.

  3. Omid

    February 12, 2010

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    You make a good point about reality shows that provide good role models for both kids and adults, but I guess I would ask two questions.

    One, What about all the down right bad role models provided by the other reality tv shows?

    Two, though this is very much a subjective question, what are we really teaching people with reality tv shows like American Idol?

    but, as I think about it more, I realize we don’t watch television to find a role model or learn (though it be nice if more people did) we watch primarily to be entertained.

    It reminds me of the gladiator colosseum battles that took place in ancient Rome. Even though I would view it as barbaric and savage some of the most remarkable pieces of art were also produced from that time.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that even though our generation might be remembered for reality television shows like American Idol, we will also be remembered for deep epics like Lost.

  4. Dan Clarendon

    February 12, 2010

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    Omid, I think you must have misunderstood me—the answers to both your questions were in my first response.

    In answer to your first question, I said earlier that “reality shows that feature good role models for children (and for adults) will continue to gain my appreciation.” I say nothing of the shows that feature BAD role models because those are shows I don’t support.

    In answer to your second question, I said earlier, “many [shows] feature contestants who overcame obstacles to get to be as good as they are.” These shows teach people that no matter what your hardships, you can find success if you’re persistent and determined enough. And though I’m not a fan of American Idol, I’d hardly call it barbaric and savage.

    I’m not saying reality television on a whole is good. I’m saying, don’t paint ALL of it with the same brush. No one genre is perfect. Every genre has great shows and terrible shows, reality included.

  5. Sue Clarendon

    January 24, 2011

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    “Repurposed” – I like that. Huzzah! Interesting assignment, too. I wonder what another random slice might have yielded, for ex. the late afternoon talk show fest.

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